Controlled top blowing

A couple of weeks ago I read a piece in the New York Times on the benefits of blowing your top. The writer talks about

"Millions of people live or work with exasperatingly cool customers, who seem to be missing an emotional battery, or perhaps saving their feelings for a special occasion. People who – unlike the mining operators in the gulf – have a blowout preventer that works all too well."

I thought this was a good and different take on the perceived wisdom that blowing your top – at least in the office is not the right thing to do. It's seen a emotionally unintelligent and a 'derailer'

DDI has a published a list of what it calls 'Executive Derailers' characteristics that are likely to upend an executive on his/her path to fame and glory. DDI identifies 11 derailer behaviors. Described as "fatal personality flaws, which…may knock [leaders] off the track to success," these behaviors include being: impulsive, risk adverse, imperceptive, arrogant, approval dependent, self-promoting, eccentric, defensive, and volatile. Low tolerance for ambiguity and micromanaging complete their list.

Volatility is the one that equates to 'blowing your top' it:

Describes individuals who have difficulty controlling their emotions and are perhaps moody and quick to anger. Others might describe them as possessing short attention spans, frequently changing interests and enthusiasms, and "taking a roller coaster ride through life." These people tend to lack tactfulness. Individuals might derail because they are seen as too moody, have unstable relationships and job histories, and fail to express emotions appropriately.

The Hogan Development Survey assesses eleven personality-based performance risks that impede work relationships, hinder productivity, or limit overall career potential. These career derailers – deeply ingrained in personality traits – affect an individual's leadership style and actions. Hogan's eleven derailers are different from DDI's eleven derailers. Their's are

  • Excitable: moody, easily annoyed, hard to please, and emotionally volatile
  • Skeptical: distrustful, cynical, sensitive to criticism, and focused on the negative
  • Cautious: unassertive, resistant to change, risk-averse, and slow to make decisions
  • Reserved: aloof, indifferent to the feelings of others, and uncommunicative
  • Leisurely: overtly cooperative, but privately irritable, stubborn, and uncooperative
  • Bold: overly self-confident, arrogant, and inflated feelings of self-worth
  • Mischievous: charming, risk-taking, limit-testing and excitement-seeking
  • Colourful: dramatic, attention-seeking, interruptive, and poor listening skills
  • Imaginative: creative, but thinking and acting in unusual or eccentric ways
  • Diligent: perfectionistic, hard to please, and micromanaging
  • Dutiful: eager to please and reluctant to act independently or against popular opinion

I haven't checked whether other writers, researchers, and survey designers also think that eleven is the magic number of derailers. And I'm not sure if there's a sort of proportion that's in order for predictable leadership success – if you show signs of 5/11 derailers but 12/24 leadership strengths is that ok? But I guess that's not worth speculating on. It's all contingent on circumstance.

The reason I was looked at the topic in the first place was because one of the leaders in my acquaintance suddenly blew his top about meetings: having them, the protocols (not), of them; the time wasting of them; the lack of results from them; the list went on for nine – not eleven – points and we were all invited to add to the diatribe against meetings in order to get a comprehensive list of things to eradicate for ever from our meetings.

The interesting thing was that the 'blowing of top' was entirely calm, cool and collected. It was a deliberate kick at unproductive organizational behaviour, and a well-aimed kick too.

So, blowing one's top can be a controlled blast, much as a building is consciously detonated, or it can be uncontrolled, with disastrous and uncontrollable consequences. It is useful or not depending on the circumstances and the way in which it is done. And this is what the New York TImes article suggests:

Research in the past few years has found that people develop a variety of psychological tools to manage what they express in social situations, and those techniques often become subconscious, affecting interactions in unintended ways. The better that people understand their own patterns, the more likely they are to see why some emotionally charged interactions go awry – whether from too little control or … perhaps too much..

The key to whether a behavior is a derailer or not then is partly to do with the situation and partly to do with how the behavior is expressed and regulated

In a paper discussing emotional regulation the researchers proposed measuring three components of regulation: concealing (i.e., suppression), adjusting (quickly calming anger, for instance) and tolerating (openly expressing emotion). The research subjects were all students in their twenties so the researchers pointed out that generalizations to other age groups would be a mistake. Nevertheless the idea of choosing how to effectively (i.e. not damaging oneself or others) blow one's top and get good results from doing so is worth exploring.

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